NICOYA, Guanacaste – Marimbas and the one-two beat of traditional Guanacasteco music drifted across the city of Nicoya Thursday morning, along with the high-pitched cries of sabaneros, local cowboys, whooping with glee.
But the festivities for the Annexation of Guancaste celebration were mixed with protesters carrying signs reading, “No water with arsenic,” “Guanacaste: Victim of bullying for 189 years,” and “Guanacaste does not only exist on July 25.”
Some 500 protesters marched from La Anexión Hospital in Nicoya, Guanacaste, Thursday morning to the city’s central park, where the annual celebration of Guanacaste joining Costa Rica on July 25, 1824, became a platform to air the region’s frustrations. The daily La Nación reported a much higher turnout, estimating more than 2,000 protesters were at the park.
The march’s demands were varied and covered everything from calls for improved health care services, betters roads, reconstruction funds for last September’s major earthquake on the peninsula, and new aqueducts as part of a “definitive” solution to the high levels of arsenic in the region.
Organizers with the People’s Voice Association have been fighting for answers for three years now as to why the water in several cantons across Guanacaste has high levels of arsenic, and what is the cause behind the rates of chronic kidney failure that are estimated to be 18 percent higher than the national average, according to Roy Wong, a researcher with the Costa Rican Social Security System, the country’s public health administration.
“We’re looking for someone who can tell us what is killing us, what is in our water and our environment that is killing us. No one has given us an answer and that’s why we’re angry and frustrated and here today,” said Mainor Picado Camareno of the People’s Voice Association of Bagaces, one of the municipalities most affected by the mysterious chronic kidney failure that has claimed several lives.
“The president wants people to think that this is a march by the Broad Front Party or another political party. No, there are people from Liberation [the ruling National Liberation Party], PAC [the opposition Citizen Action Party], communists annd Unidad [Christian Social Unity Party]. What has us united is death, the illnesses of our neighbors and families. This is not a partisan issue,” Picado said.
Onlookers sympathized with the marchers.
Hannia Carrillo grew up in Sámara, Guanacaste, and came back with her mother from Heredia, where they currently live north of the capital, to celebrate the festival.
“I agree with the march,” she said, sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch with her mother. “The president’s focus on tourism has left the rest of the province behind,” referencing the region’s famous beaches and luxe hotels.
Many protesters blame the government’s preferential treatment of large hotels and landowners on the peninsula, especially when it comes to low tax rates and paved roads, as one of the causes of rising inequality here.
According to Salvatore Coppola, an organizer with the Guanacaste Forum, Guanacaste is the most economically unequal province in the country.
Luis Guarda, 89, leaned on the metal gate in front of his home to watch the protesters march by. He agrees that the province is “forgotten.”
“You see it everywhere, in the poverty,” Guarda said.
While many of the protesters were from Guanacaste, others made the long drive from the Central Valley and elsewhere to lend their support.
A man who identified himself as “Jorge,” from the Alajuela Forum, a broad coalition of social activists, environmentalists and other groups, said it was important to show solidarity with Guanacaste.
“These are the same problems you see everywhere,” he said.